The media is helping the GOP in the health care debate

Much of the media, however unwittingly, is helping the Republicans in the health care debate.

No doubt, TV and print journalists claim they’re playing the big story right down the middle:
— The Republicans claim the Democrats want “socialized medicine,” the old conservative pejorative for national health insurance. The Democrats say no way.
— The media simply reports the charges and the denials and calls it “fair and balanced” news coverage.

This old reporter calls it biased coverage, even it it’s not necessarily intentional. Here’s what I mean.

If all, or most, of what we see on TV or read in the newspaper about health care is Republicans saying the Democrats are for “socialized medicine” and the Democrats protesting they’re not, a lot of people are going to conclude that “socialized medicine” really is bad medicine because neither party wants it.

What the Democrats – even liberals – want isn’t anything nearly as comprehensive as national health insurance programs in other countries. Nonetheless, the Republicans call it “socialized medicine.”

The Republicans know “socialism” is a dirty word in America, the most conservative and capitalist industrial democracy. So with a little help from the media, they have been able to frame the health care debate primarily between American “free enterprise” and alien “socialism.”

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a reporter’s job to report, not editorialize. But this old reporter wishes the media would start doing some real reporting on what “socialized medicine” means in other industrial democracies. (We’re the only one without some form of comprehensive national health insurance for everybody.)

But the media seems to prefer playing up “horror stories” of poor souls needlessly suffering, and even dying, in foreign countries with “socialized medicine.” The GOP and its allies in the insurance and private health care industries are feeding most of the stories to reporters.

The Republicans most commonly cite Canada and Great Britain, both of which have comprehensive national health insurance systems, as examples of why America doesn’t need “socialized medicine.”

Many of the “horror stories” are about ill or injured Canadians who say that they had to come to the U.S. to get needed medical care – and that they are grateful to have such a nice neighbor. But I don’t see nearly as much on TV or in the newspaper about other Canadians who say that the “horror stories” are the exception, not the rule, and that many of the stories are not even true.
At the same time, I haven’t seen the media ask the most obvious question about “socialized medicine” in Canada and Britain: If it’s so bad, why don’t the Canadians and British get rid of it?

They can any time they wish. Canada and Britain are every bit as democratic as the U.S.

The Canadians and British vote in and vote out their government leaders, like we do. So why haven’t they elected majorities to their parliaments who would ditch “socialized medicine?”

Even so, the media “horror stories” have doubtlessly convinced a lot of Americans that most Canadians – Britons, too – must hate their public health care systems and would surely prefer a mostly private system like ours.

But if public opinion polls are accurate, most Canadians, and evidently most Britons, like their “socialized medicine” and definitely don’t want what we have. (The U.S. is the only industrial democracy without some form of comprehensive national health insurance.)

A recent Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey hasn’t grabbed many headlines south of the border. But the poll showed that 82 percent of Canadians believe their system is better than ours.

I haven’t been a working reporter for years, so my sources aren’t what they used to be. I looked for a similar poll on health care in Great Britain but couldn’t find one any more current than a 2004 Gallup survey. That one said “only 21% of British citizens would like to see the government-run British system replaced with a system based mostly on private insurance.” My guess is the numbers haven’t changed much in five years.

Here’s another question I’d like to see more reporters asking the Republicans (and Blue Dog Democrats): Can you give us solid proof – not just anecdotal “horror stories” — that “socialized medicine” is making lives shorter and less healthy for Canadians and Britons?
It didn’t take me long to mine some interesting numbers off the Internet. A source I found says life expectancy at birth in Canada is 81.23 years, 79.01 in Great Britain and 78.11 in the U.S.

“Life expectancy at birth is also a measure of overall quality of life in a country,” the source explained.

Republicans and Blue Dogs might dismiss the numbers as cooked, maybe even “socialist propaganda” from Health Canada or the British National Health Service.
The stats — and the explanation – come from the CIA’s World Factbook online.

The Factbook also says the infant mortality rate in the U.S. is 6.26 deaths per 1,000 live births. The rate is 5.04 in Canada and 4.85 in Great Britain. “This rate is often used as an indicator of the level of health in a country,” according to the Factbook.

Meanwhile, James Clancy, national president of Canada’s National Union of Public and General Employees, wants to help set the record straight about health care in his country.

He sent a letter to President Obama, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and every member of the House and Senate, inviting them to contact him about his country’s health care system or to come see it first hand.

“I would be pleased to speak or meet with you at anytime, or if you’re interested we could arrange a ‘study mission’ to Canada, to ensure you have an accurate picture of the benefits and popularity of Canada’s most cherished social program,” Clancy wrote. He said he is concerned “about the scurrilous misrepresentations of Canada and our single-payer health system in the debate over the future of health care in the United States.”

He added, “When it comes to health outcomes, on almost every critical measure, whether it is life expectancy rates, infant mortality rates, or potential years of lost life, Canada rates much better than the U.S. and we’re among the best in the world. Notwithstanding the ‘real life’ stories you’ve heard in TV ads launched by the group Patients United Now [an ultra-conservative U.S. group], a very strong majority of Canadians who use the system are highly satisfied with the quality and standard of care they receive.”

Clancy also wrote that, “In terms of controlling costs, health spending in Canada is on par with most countries in the Western world and it’s substantially lower than in the U.S. And yet we devote a smaller portion of Gross Domestic Product to health care today than we did over a decade ago. It’s totally unthinkable to Canadians to experience bankruptcy due to medical bills, as do over one million Americans every year. Unlike in the U.S., not a single Canadian who is unemployed has lost the ability to access health care during the current economic recession.

“In addition, our single-payer system provides both small and large businesses in Canada with a clear competitive advantage. Employers don’t have to provide basic health care for their workers – our single-payer system does that. Our businesses also enjoy the benefits of a healthier and more productive workforce thanks to our universal system. Unlike in the U.S. where basic health care is a major source of labour relations strife, it’s hardly an issue at the bargaining table in Canada. We also enjoy greater labour mobility because workers who don’t have to worry about losing health benefits are more willing and able to switch jobs and move to where the work is.

“Finally, what you’re being told about government-run health care with patients suffering and dying on wait lists is nothing but lies. No need for emergency or urgent care is ever neglected in Canada. If your doctor says you need the care urgently, you get it, period. Moreover, Statistics Canada reports that the median wait time for elective surgery is four weeks and the median wait time for diagnostic imaging like MRIs is three weeks. And contrary to popular myth, we’re free to choose whatever doctor we want. And all decisions about care and treatment are left to patients and their doctors – there’s no interference by the government or private insurance companies.”

Clancy concluded, “an objective review of the evidence shows that Canada’s single-payer system has consistently delivered affordable, timely, accessible, comprehensive and high-quality care to the overwhelming majority of Canadians on the basis of need, not wealth. It has also contributed to our international competitiveness and the productivity of our workforce.”

Maybe I missed it. But I haven’t seen anything about Clancy’s letter on my TV news or in my local newspaper. But my guess is Clancy would also welcome our Fourth Estate to check out the Canadian health care system. Good reporters are glad to go where the story is.

Anyway, “fair and balanced” journalism goes deeper that just reporting charges and denials — and, for that matter, focusing on health care bill “deadlines,” which party is going to “win” the health care “battle” and nutty charges from far-right-wing crazies that the Democrats’ “socialized medicine” will lead to mass murder of grandmas and grandpas.

If our scribes and TV talking heads were to take Clancy up on his offer, I’ve got a pretty good idea what they would find. My guess is for every Canadian the Republicans or some ultra-conservative group trots out to trash Canada’s single-payer system for the U.S. media, thousands more Canadians would say good things about their system. I’d also bet that most Canadians who would gripe about their system would quickly add it’s better than what we’ve got.

Of course, happy seldom grabs headlines or leads the six o’clock news stateside, no matter what the story is about.

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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a native Kentuckian, a professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance journalist. He is a member of the American Federation of Teachers and the Kentucky Education Association/National Education Association. He is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, which he describes as "a strictly non-partisan chronicle of our political past from Gov. Isaac Shelby to Gov. Ruby Laffoon."
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3 Responses to The media is helping the GOP in the health care debate

  1. Of course the GOP is going to get backing from big corporations, that is simply who they represent. Democrats represent the people.

  2. Gman says:

    August 7, 2009, 8:13 pm
    Weekend Opinionator: A Sick Debate
    By Tobin Harshaw

    12. August 8, 2009 1:57 am
    I have lived in Europe, the USA (NYC and FLA) and currently live in Canada. I am a reasonably well-informed financial executive. I make my living as a capitalist.

    I wouldn’t know where to begin re: the health care debate but I will make a couple of observations:

    1. The USA has the finest health care in the world — bar none — provided that you have a no-limit gilt-edged money is no object health plan. Or you are rich. In my experience the 2 go hand in hand.

    Failing such insurance or such boundless wealth how any rational human being with an IQ over 75 and an income below, say, $250k (forget the social compassion argument) could defend the existing system is beyond comprehension.

    2. The outright lies — yes lies — that critics of health care reform spew is disturbing. The intentional misrepresentation of the Canadian and European models is outrageous. The Canadian model is flawed. There needs to be greater access to ‘private-delivery’ alternatives (which currently exist in some fields.) Having said that, since I returned to the province of Ontario in the late 1990’s until now the improvement in standards and care is staggering and in most cases matches anything I witnessed or experienced in NYC. Yes, health care is rationed here (hence a need for ancillary private care) but it is rationed everywhere — including the US. The exception being as per point #1 above. Per capita Ontario spends approximately 65% of what the consumers/taxpayers of the US/NY spend. However Ontario delivers 90% — or more — of the US standard. That is one very big financial/efficiency/productivity gap. That money gap goes to the US insurance companies, doctors, malpractice lawyers and lobbyists. The common canard about Canada etc is that “faceless bureaucrats make life or death decisions” (as opposed to, say, faceless HMO clerks). The truth is that in Canada the ‘gatekeepers’ who allocate critical care are the physicians themselves — the specialists.

    3. Aside from private-payment plastic surgeons it is true you will not see many doctors in Canada driving a Rolls Royce. But you will see an awful lot driving a Benz or a Jag. Doctors here work hard and are well compensated. What we lack here is the concept that a medical degree should be attributed Venture Capitalist returns.

    4. Lastly, a general observation/question (again, I really am a capitalist). Why is it that in the USA (a country I genuinely love) millions of people who barely make a living or are working class and/or just holding on to the ‘middle class’ are the most vocal — hysterical wouldn’t be an exaggeration — in defending the privileges of the rich and the corporate? Against their own self-interest I might add. Anywhere else in the western world the existing US health care tyranny would have people in the streets demanding reform — not ‘debating’ it.

    — jon c

  3. GMan

    All valid points thank you.